31 May 2010


I always find it hard to write about story collections, particularly those containing exceptional stories - do you write about the whole thing or about the individual pieces?

I read Alice Munro's Runaway as the May 2010 selection for my "Literature by Women" group.  Munro has been on my "you ought to read that" longlist for quite some time but I never got around to picking out one of her books to read (an earlier collection containing "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" caught my attention after watching Sarah Polley's adaptation Away From Her - a beautiful adaptation of a heart-wrenching story).  Runaway was awarded the 2004 Giller Prize, not to mention Munro's richly-deserved 2009 International Man Booker awarded for her body of work.

The stories in Runaway all deal with women retreating from some idea or situation.  The title story follows a young woman who impusively tries to leave her abusive marriage.  "Trespasses" follows a young teen befriended by a woman who turns out to have ulterior motives.  In "Passion" an orphaned young woman, Grace, shakes off her emotionally-dry-but-proper-and-capable steady boyfriend in an unexpected joyride with his drunken elder brother.  Two sections of Runaway are made up of linked stories to create two novellas.  "Chance", "Soon", and "Silence" follow Juliet as she runs away from her established path, her parents' disapproval, and Juliet's daughter runs away from her.  "Powers" consists of five stories following Tessa, a psychic, who ends up in a spot of trouble due to her visions.

The most remarkable thing about Munro is her writing style, something I had not noticed until I went back and re-read the first few chapters of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer (specifically Chapter 2 - "Words").  Munro does not ascribe to the creed of "show, don't tell" - the example story Prose uses is "Dulse" from Selected Stories where she points out that Munro doesn't waste time having the reader "see" Lydia working as an editor or writing poetry.  Munro tells us that's what Lydia does then gets down to business.  The same style is present here; Juliet muses on her life of teaching while she reads her Greek history book on the train - we don't see Juliet teaching because it's not necessary to Munro's story and she doesn't bother with it.  Her words slice into your brain effectively because there isn't any fluff to slow them down.

29 May 2010

A "Be Healthy" Update

I do most of my "Be Healthy" soul-unburdening over at "Is that my ass?" but a little note to say that I spent waaaay too much money on groceries but I have yummy raspberry muffins to show for it.

25 May 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Troubles

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers
As for the Major, his cold was much worse and he had just decided to spend the rest of the day in bed when a message arrived from Sarah to say that she was bored and would like to come to the Majestic "to see everyone" and would he come and collect her?  He was ill.
~ p 228, Troubles by J.G. Farrell
*Troubles just won the "Lost" Booker!

22 May 2010

Born to Rule

Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria has been hanging around the bookshelves for several years.  I'd actually forgot I had it until I started cleaning out the book hoard because it needs to decrease a bit before moving house.  So I started reading it before getting rid of it (I'll see if my mom wants it).  I would have sworn I read it before but there wasn't a book journal entry (maybe I only read the part about Alix marrying Nicholas of the Romanovs).

The subject matter is interesting - of Queen Victoria's numerous grandchildren, five of the girls grew up and became Queens Consort, dotted around Euope.  Maud of Wales (Queen of Norway), Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt (Tsarina of Russia), Marie of Edinburgh (Queen of Romania), Sophie of Prussia (Queen of the Hellenes), and Victoria Eugenie (Ena) of Battenburg (Queen of Spain) married into reigning houses during the tumultuous period marking the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.  Each woman is interesting enough for a biography of her own (and in Marie's case, she wrote three volumes of memoirs).

Putting all five Queens into one book is interesting in that it shows the parallels between each woman's life, from childhood to adulthood, but the constant ping-ponging around between Queens within each chapter can get confusing.  So much so that you can forget which person is which; there are a lot of family names and nicknames used frequently in the book.  I also would have appreciated a map or three or more; this period in European history has constantly changing national boundaries so sometimes it's hard to remember where the Austro-Hungarian boundary was pre-World War I, or where the heck in Greece Tatoi is located, or where Ekaterinburg is in relation to St. Petersburg, or where Hesse and it's boundaries were in relation to Berlin.  There are two sections of very lovely photographs, which is nice, but a map would have done wonders.  I did a lot of Wikipedia-ing and Google Map-ing.

Confounding this lack of geography was the irritating habit of the author to foreshadow coming events with some form of the verb "to shatter."  Everything is earth-shattering, shatters the peace, shatters a marriage, or someone's life is shattered prior to the description of whatever event it is that does the shattering.  Annoying, truly, especially when the last line of chapter eighteen closed with a teaser concerning Queen Marie's knowledge of "earth-shattering news concerning the Tsarina of Russia's indispensable favorite, Rasputin" (p 225) but the opening of chapter nineteen concerned the birth of Queen Ena's last child in Madrid.  We get back to Rasputin on page 238 in chapter twenty.  The saving grace of this book is the personal story of the five Queens; it was the only thing keeping me going when I was on the verge of chucking it all and looking up everyone on Wikipedia to see what happened.

17 May 2010

Guess what my Blu-Ray player does now?

It streams Pandora Internet Radio!!!!

A software update downloaded and, presto!  Not only can I stream Netflix wirelessly on my Insignia Blu-Ray player but Pandora stations, too.  I'm so excited!  I almost peed my pants (no joke).  I think I made ten stations in about 30 seconds when I set up the account.

I don't have a super fancy cable package anymore and I was missing the music channels (since MTV and VH1 play almost ZERO music anymore - curious - and I like to listen to classical piano music at night) so this is such a great surprise.

Off to listen to the "Jean-Yves Thibaudet" station.

10 May 2010

The Best American Short Stories 2009

This was my last "Best American" 2009 book yet to read and I'm glad I saved it for the end.  Each of the stories in this volume are wonderful selections, very wide ranging, and occasionally gut-wrenching.  Brava to Alice Sebold for her selections (in her introduction she notes that out of the 200 hundred stories she read in consideration for this volume, eleven were immediately "in" - I wonder which ones).

The story from this volume that most haunts me is "Modulation" by Richard Powers - a story about a rogue music "virus" and its easy spread and effect on listeners.  What affected me so deeply was the ability for something like this, and even more sinister, to spread in the exact way that Powers proposes in the story.  File sharing.  Powers also gives his characters, however briefly we meet them, a deep love of music in all its forms and that appeals to me as well.

Alex Rose's "Ostracon" is heartbreaking in the depiction of an elderly woman who doesn't realise the depths of her dementia - her husband, however, dreads what the loss of Katya's memory portends.  "The Briefcase" by Rebecca Makkai is heartbreaking, too, chronicling a man's brief escape from his life political imprisonment by usurping the life of the man, a professor, picked to replace him in the body count; the briefcase of the story is the key to the unnamed man's salvation and downfall.

One story, however, seems altogether too real to be fiction.  "Beyond the Pale" by Joseph Epstein is narrated by Arnold Berman who tells the story of his love for Yiddish and how that love led him to translate the work of Yiddish-language writer Zalman Belzner.  The story is matter-of-fact, chronicling the life of an ordinary man and father who crosses paths with a piece of history.  The little details Epstein includes - the suits worn by a beloved grandfather, Gerda Belzner's idiosyncrasies, the arrival of children - make the piece seem like a mini-biography, less like a story, and it is all the more enjoyable for that reason.

All the stories in this volume are a delight to read, even the stranger ones like "The Peripatetic Coffin" and "Hurricanes Anonymous" which seems to have neither beginning nor end.  Never having read any earlier short stories volumes from the Best American series, are they all like that?  I guess I'll have to wait and see!

07 May 2010

It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me

"Meet Ariel.  Her glass is half empty...and leaking."

So begins the description on the back cover of Ariel Leve's new book It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me, a collection of entries from her "Cassandra" and "Half Empty" columns.  Ariel is a worry-wart with a bit of pessimist mixed in; she says on page one, "Worrying is my yoga," and she quibbles over the mundanities of life like how to respond to "what's up?" or the way New Yorkers view your responses to small talk at a party.

However, there is a wryness to her writing.  Ariel also finds the irony of a situation.  In "Don't Ask Where She Got It" Ariel notes that while women in New York will share intimate medical history freely they are reticent to disclose the store where they purchased the handbag you're admiring; if you steal their style, you could subsume their life.  She muses over the complications of a proposed all-male brothel - not legal complications, but relationship complications.  She also notes that the woman "tut-tutting" you in the check-out line because you asked for a plastic bag is not the tree-hugging bicyclist but another species of female entirely.

She loves coffee, too (which is what prompted last week's "Teaser Tuesday" post), so I find a kindred spirit in Ariel - I also tend toward the negative, love coffee, and find a "loser friend" can occasionally come in handy. 

For those not familiar with Ariel's style, reading It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me straight through may seem a bit of a chore.  She worries about everything and usually assumes the worst of Murphy's Law (i.e. if something can go wrong, it will) so reading one column after another can make her observations seem repetitive.  I think the layout of this book helps to alleviate this (I read it straight through but then I've read her previous columns at times).  Each piece is the length of a column - at most 2 pages or so in length - and they are grouped by subject; you can jump around to a different chapter depending on the subject and read just a few columns at a time if you need a worry break.  Ariel's work is very much worth reading because she is a "real person" rather than one of the glitterati.  She's an author in a small Manhattan apartment not a megastar boo-hooing her way through her multi-million dollar contract in the Hamptons.  We can all identify with the hassle of trying to find a cab.  In the pouring rain.  By yourself.  In stilettos (and I live in Iowa - I may not hail many cabs but I have had to traverse a very large parking lot in the pouring rain by myself in stilettos without getting lost, run over, or soaked to the skin).

*Dear FTC: I received a copy of this book from the publisher.

05 May 2010

Teaser Tuesday (late): It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title and author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers

I haven't done a teaser in a while!
One day at lunch my science teacher saw me drinking coffee in the cafeteria and complained to my mother.  He told her that he didn't think it was a good idea for me to have caffiene and that's probably why I wan't paying attention in class.  But she told him the reason I didn't pay attention in class was because he was a moron.  After that, he left me alone.
~ p 16, It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me by Ariel Levy

04 May 2010

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

Nancy Pickard's new novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, is the new Barnes and Noble Recommends Main Selection. This is a murder mystery (of sorts) revolving around the Linder family and set in fictional small-town Rose, Kansas.  Jody Linder's father was killed 23 years ago - her mother is missing, presumed dead, in the same incident - and the man convicted of that crime has been released from his sentence on a technicality.  The novel consists of two parallel timelines: the modern line which follows adult Jody as she processes the news that the Bad Man from her past is now free and the flashback line which tells the story of the day leading up to the murder of Hugh-Jay Linder and the aftermath of that event. 

The writing of The Scent of Rain and Lightning is very lovely, which is an odd description for a novel with fairly dark subject matter, but it was very evocative. There is a lot of beauty in the descriptions of the Kansas prairie and the thunderstorms that roll through the plains. Pickard sets and maintains a wonderful atmosphere in her book and it does remind me of Billie Letts's Where the Heart Is in some ways, the small town with its intimately intertwined core of residents. There is a nice twist at the end of The Scent of Rain and Lightning and I can tell you I thought I had the mystery figured out...but I was completely wrong.  That's a nice feeling when you're reading a mystery novel.  The characters are at times a little two dimensional - the town bartender, the busy-body, the abused wife of the Bad Man, etc. - but Pickard did quite well fleshing out the different members of the Linder family.

The one thing that got to me - and should have been fixed at the editing phase - was the massive foreshadowing done in the first set of flashback chapters. The reader has already been informed that Something Bad happened to Jody's family in the opening chapter so I really didn't need the heavy-handed "next-to-last time she saw her father" or that Something Bad would happen in less than 24 hours at the end of a chapter or a break. It was too much and it did get distracting in a book that was otherwise quite nice to read (and hard to put down). 
*Dear FTC: I borrowed the advance copy from my store.

03 May 2010

North and South


I re-read North and South for Literature by Women at BNBC and it is a really nice Victorian novel, one that was serialized in Dickens's Household Words before publication and one that I think shows the uncertainty of a woman's place as well as the plight of the lower class.

It'a really nice book to read.  Gaskell has a nice writing style and nearly all the characters are likeable (even prickly Mrs. Thornton).  Everything ends quite well - the marriage plot works out and Maragaret isn't destitute.

But I can't help thinking that the "social novel" Gaskell started writing - the one where the plight of the mill workers in the industrial north is shown and mitigated - falls by the wayside as Margaret and John develop a relationship.  The central portion of the book is used up showing how the poor working conditions, poor pay, and poor nutrition was working against the mill workers (Bessy's death from the "fluff" is quite moving) but it starts to fade into the background.

02 May 2010

Flowers in the Attic

It is ridiculously hard to accurately gauge a book that attracts you (family secrets!! salaciousness!! incest!! kidnapping!!) and also repels you (salaciousness!! incest!! kidnapping!!) because, hell yes, I read this cover to cover in about three hours and, hell yes, I am STILL creeped out by this book even though I am twenty years older (my twelve-year-old self can't quite believe that last statement).

Flowers in the Attic gave me a fear of attics and creepy old houses, far more than Rebecca ever did along with scary materialistic moms, whippings, fundamentally religious grannies, and creepy twins. There's also blood drinking, HOW did I forget that?  Did I mention the incest thing?  There's a lot of that going around in there, too.  Twelve-year-old me wants a flashlight again.  I don't remember reading anymore in this series probably because I had the feeling the incest thing was going to keep popping up and that's one of the things that I draw the "gross" line on.  Not sure if I would read anymore of the Dollanganger series now as an adult, either.

Flowers in the Attic was a fantastically crazy way to kick off my nostalgia project. Now to find something that doesn't make me want to check in all the nooks and crannies!
*Edit: Read the plot summaries of the remaining Dollanganger books, don't think I care to read anymore.

01 May 2010

Tra-la, it's May!

The lusty month of May (I used to have the entire Camelot soundtrack memorized). By "lusty" I mean "I am going to sit on my porch and read every chance I get" because my life went all sorts of crazy in April. Trying to get people to buy a 2 bedroom condo is insane; you'd think I (and my real estate agent) was asking people to drink a colonic of straight bleach or something. Sheesh.  Today is particularly lovely, not too cool, with a breeze, and big fluffy white clouds in a bright blue sky.  Perfect for lazy swinging and reading.

Like I did when I was a kid.  Even after I got too big to play on the swingset in our backyard I liked to sit on the glider portion and read, swaying in the breeze.  It's very peaceful...(****zzzzzzz****)...what?? Oh, sorry, dozed off for a bit which is the other reason why I like reading on the porch.  Napping.

To that end (the reading end, that is) I'm going to concentrate on reading kids and YA books while whiling away my reading time on the porch.  My Newbery Project is woefully behind and while I didn't participate in the Shelf Discovery Challenge I would like to revisit (or visit anew) many of the books Lizzie Skurnick profiled in Shelf Discovery (read last summer).  And read some more Judy Blume (who really ought to have a Nobel Prize).

This, then, is my Nostalgia Project.  I've been thinking about all the books that meant so much to me as a kid and how much I'd like to read them again.  Or read some books that I can't remember reading as a kid, but think I did. There will obviously be overlap with the Newbery Project and I'm not going to call it a challenge because I see this extending far beyond the limits of one summer.

Gotta go.  The porch swing is calling and I borrowed Flowers in the Attic from the library to get me started.

Why wandering my local public library makes me sad

I was wandering the Coralville Public Library today because 1) it was Saturday and 2) I was looking to see if they had the Alice Munro short story collection with "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (the basis for Sarah Polley's film Away From Her).  The library did have Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship as well as a number of oddities:
1) Six brand-new (I mean BRAND-NEW) copies of Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World in fiction under the "n"s (that's probably better shelved as philosophy and, while I understand she was the Duchess of Newcastle, no one will really think to look under Newcastle instead of Cavendish)
2) Six brand-new (I mean BRAND-NEW) copies of Vilette (in varying editions) and brand-new Oxford editions of Anthony Trollope but only one tatty copy of Jane Eyre and a number of decrepit Mark Twain novels; wouldn't it be more beneficial to replace the crappy copies of popular books rather than acquire multiple spandy-new copies of rarely checked-out books?
3) YA fiction by authors with adult books/YA editions of adult books are shelved in the adult section, not the teen section (i.e. Francine Prose's Goldengrove and the old Great Illustrated Classics editions of Dumas)
4) Adult fiction is divided into "Mystery" and "Fiction"...that's it; the library I grew up with had "Fiction", "Mystery", "Romance", and "Science Fiction" - just personal opinion, but I like that much better than the CPL way
5) People eating/drinking in the library (this also bugs me in our store, but I remember people getting kicked out of the library when I was a kid for bringing in soda)
6) Mohawk Dude (who also likes to hang out at our store, thus he has a nickname, and smells like the Dumpster at a fish bait shop) was ensconced at a computer, listening to something on his headphones, and painting; as in paint-on-paper painting - since I know this dude has pretty much no money (because he damaged a hardcover copy of HP5 in our store and told us he was unable to pay for it), what would the library do if he spilled all over the place and ruined something?  Considering my taxes and donations help pay for all the library accoutrement I would prefer that he go paint outdoors.
The library is a completely different place from when I was a child.  It makes me sad.  I loved going to the library to browse the shelves in peace and quiet with other book lovers.  Now the library is filled with people hogging the computers to download/watch anime while eating their Subway sandwiches and talking volubly about who did what on TV last night.